By: Pete Sulzer
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
-William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)
The fire service is often greatly influenced by the nation’s largest departments. However, the majority of the American fire service is composed of departments that serve less than 10,000 people. Members of these smaller agencies tend to look to the metropolitan departments for trends in operations, equipment, and staffing. There is nothing wrong with this practice; in fact, it can be beneficial. Larger departments have the resources to test and perfect new concepts. They are typically busy enough to thoroughly try out new equipment. In addition, instructors from larger departments can often be relied on since they have been sifted out from among the ranks of hundreds, if not thousands, of their co-workers. Borrowing “big city” methods and ideas can have a positive outcome, granted that you must analyze and modify those methods to fit your own area, apparatus, and staffing. However, problems can manifest when members of smaller departments become enamored with the bigger, busier, and perceivably “better” agencies.
These issues arise if we turn our attention back to our own company in disgust and disappointed. We may wonder, “Why can’t we operate like that? Why aren’t we that efficient?” We curse fate for delivering us to a quiet, suburban department and turn our nose up at last year’s meager run numbers—as if that were the cause of our faults and mistakes. However, as Cassius told Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “the fault…is not in our stars.” On the contrary, our poor fireground performance, lack of company pride, and less-than-stellar equipment condition cannot be blamed on low population density or call volume. “Men at some time are masters of their fates”,[i] and if blame is to be placed, then we must own it and do something to correct it.
Part of the Fire Service Warrior Ethos is to own our responsibility to our Brothers and Sisters. Often this means humbly acknowledging our faults and shortcomings so that we may improve and contribute to the greater good of the department. We can’t afford to lean on the crutch of a small department or “slow” company as a justification for poor performance. You may not run many fires in a year, but your performance on those few “workers” means everything to the occupants of those structures. There is no excuse for mediocrity, other than apathy, and preventing it starts with you. Are you performing at your best? Not just on working fires, but on every run and during every drill. Do you step up during training when others show disinterest? If you aren’t providing a positive example and contributing to your department’s improvement, then you are contributing to its demise. This responsibility belongs to every member of the department, regardless of rank. Firefighters with unmotivated officers can find activities to hone their skills alone, but in a conspicuous place so that others may be motivated to join in. An entire company of firefighters drilling is difficult for even the most unenthusiastic officer to ignore. Company officers should not blame peers who ignore attempts at inter-company drills, or Chief officers who dismiss equipment modifications and suggestions as unnecessary. Chief officers need not blame every department inadequacy on the City Council or a lack of funds. Do not pass the buck and blame your peers, superiors, or subordinates. Stop the buck, take the blame, and take the initiative to do what it takes to improve, starting with you and working throughout the department.
Once you begin to address your personal improvement, direct your attention to your equipment. Hoards of firefighters will quickly “like” a Facebook photo of another department’s rig or tools. Perhaps you should wonder, why are those photos so appealing? Consider how your own rigs look in comparison. Are they clean, fueled, and ready for duty? Now, inspect your tools. Are they clean and sharp? Are your tools readily accessible for crews to grab as they dismount and go to work, or are they hidden away in some awkward compartment because mounting them outside the rig “looks ugly”? Your rig should be set up as a work truck because that’s exactly what it is. Some will argue that mounting tools on the side of the rig is not only unsightly, but that it causes tools to succumb to dirt and corrosion. That argument is only valid in areas with harsh winters and little down time between runs. I have been witness to rusty, un-kept tools that were stored inside dark, dry compartments as well. A tool’s condition has less to do with its storage location and everything to do with its frequency of maintenance. Take pride in YOUR tools. If you find a dirty, dull, or rusted tool during truck checks, take the time and responsibility to clean it up. With regular maintenance, tools can be mounted outside the rig with no ill effects.
Our responsibility to the community we serve and their expectation for the level of service that we provide is not scaled down according to department size and local population. We are still expected to KNOW and DO our job, regardless of where we serve. It’s ok to admire and learn from larger departments, but take pride in your own above all else. Own your actions. Own your equipment. Own your department. You don’t have to be the biggest and busiest to be the best; but the gap in experience must be filled with your own initiative and will to improve. When the tones drop for that rare small town “worker,” you must be prepared to perform at your best because you can’t call the cavalry in from the “big city” when you fall short, and you can’t blame it on the stars when things go wrong.
BIO: Pete Sulzer has been in the fire service since 2006. He currently serves with a suburban/rural combination department in central North Carolina.